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Thanks to his work on Guardians of the Galaxy and the many laughs to be found in titles like Super and Slither, writer/director James Gunn is well-regarded for his sense of humor -- but that's not really what his latest film, The Belko Experiment, is about. Save for a few moments of comic relief, the movie is a strict, violent, psychological and philosophical horror story that is designed to jangle nerves. It's material that legions of genre fans will certainly flock to... but it's also worth noting that Gunn fully expects that certain sections of the audience will not be able to tolerate the intensity of material.
After seeing The Belko Experiment last month, I found myself surprised by the overwhelming horrific atmosphere generated from James Gunn's script and the work of director Greg McLean -- and I turned that surprise into inquisitiveness when I recently sat down with Gunn at the movie's Los Angeles press day. Addressing the issue directly, I asked about the risk of turning audiences off with such disturbing material -- and the filmmaker flat out told me that he expects that not everyone is going to be able to handle it. Said Gunn,
I think a lot of audiences will get turned off -- not the audience as a whole, but audience members. Because it's extreme! There's comedy in it, but it's also not a comedy like Slither was. It's a dark movie!
In response, I told James Gunn that I felt that the comedy in The Belko Experiment actually did its part to enhance the horror, because its usage provided a certain grounding in reality that makes all the terrifying, hardcore material that much more shocking. As he would go on to explain, that was very much part of the game plan from the inception of the concept, and was actually an extension of something that he tries to bring to every film that he makes:
Something that I've always tried to have in the movies I've made is the sense of reality with the characters. But in this movie that sense of reality is taken as a new thing, because when people are starting to execute each other, it's a really harsh thing. And there's a reason why some of the other movies that are like this are a bit more cartoonish in their depiction of the people, because it doesn't become such a big deal when they're killing each other, and it's funny. This, there's humor in it, but it's horrifying in the truest sense of the word, and the script was like that. So I think that having Greg come aboard, I felt like he could handle the reality of it.
It all comes back to caring about the individuals who have found themselves trapped in a corporation of horrors, because tension originates in an audience's bond with the characters. Humor is clearly a beneficial tool in this department, but as James Gunn went on to explain, the emotional relationships between the protagonists are key as well -- and do their part in diminishing the "turn off" factor mentioned earlier. Said the filmmaker,
It's also the love between the characters. There's a sweetness that exists in some of the characters in the movie that makes it a little more bearable -- whether it's the love between Adria [Arjona] and John Gallagher Jr.'s characters; the sweetness of my brother Sean's, Marty's character, that makes the movie a little more bearable.
Altogether, it makes The Belko Experiment a cinematic experiment of its very own -- and it's one that will truly start being conducted this weekend. The movie will be in theaters this Friday, March 17th, and we have plenty more coverage coming your way -- including more from my interview with James Gunn!